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San Quentin inmate-run newspaper honored, suspended

San Quentin inmate-run newspaper honored, suspended
A group of inmates at San Quentin State Prison meet with three civilian advisors in the prison newsroom. The newspaper is being honored by the Society of Professional Journalists. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

SACRAMENTO -- The San Quentin News, the inmate-run newspaper at one of California's most notorious lockups, is being honored by a journalism association at the same time its operations have been suspended by prison officials.

The Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is recognizing the newspaper, one of the few of its kind in the country, with a freedom of information award for "accomplishing extraordinary journalism under extraordinary circumstances" and lifting "the curtain of secrecy that shrouds those who live behind the walls."

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The San Quentin News is written, designed and edited by inmates under the supervision of prison officials, who have veto power over editorial content.

A dispute involving oversight of the newspaper, which was the subject of an article in The Times last month, led to the ongoing suspension.

William Drummond, a Berkeley professor who advises the newspaper, said inmate editors switched a photo after the page had already been vetted by prison officials.

He described the 45-day suspension, which ends Feb. 15, as an overreaction because all photos available to the newspaper are either provided by prison officials or taken under close supervision.

"It comes as such a shock," he said.

Thousands of copies of the December issue were thrown out and new ones were printed, according to a statement from Juan Haines, the managing editor who is serving a 55-year sentence for bank robbery.

Lt. Sam Robinson, a spokesman for the prison, declined to discuss the reason for the suspension in detail, and he did not specify any security concerns with the newspaper's content. In an email, he said the inmates "circumvented the editorial process by publishing disapproved content."

Robinson also said the newspaper's award is "well deserved."

"The San Quentin News is published because CDCR allows, encourages and dedicates resources to it," he said. "It is a rehabilitative program that prepares inmates for their release to society."

Thomas Peele, a reporter for the Bay Area News Group and the co-chair of the committee honoring the San Quentin News, said the inmates are constantly placed in a tough position when writing about the prison system.

"If there was indeed no security risk, this type of suspension certainly underscores the types of difficulties these prison journalists face in publishing their newspaper," he said.

Peele added, "We recognized the newspaper because of the inherent difficulties the journalists there face in doing their work."

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Twitter: @chrismegerian

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